Talcott Parsons: Conservative Apologist or Irreplaceable Icon?

Robert J Holton. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Talcott Parsons is one of the most important, yet also most controversial social theorists of the twentieth century. His career spanned the five decades from the late 1920s to the late 1970s. He is possibly best known for his postwar theories of normative order, for the construction of a grand theoretical edifice labelled structural functionalism, and for a tendency to write impenetrable prose. Many of the critical commentaries on these aspects of Parsons’ work, however, lack a broader appreciation of the insights and subtleties of his work. These emerge, to take only three examples, from his early work on social action and economic life in the 1930s, his synthesis of social theory and psychoanalysis in the 1950s, as well as later work on the human condition published just before his death in 1979.

Parsons’ project for social theory contrasts with many of the prevailing modes of theoretical endeavour as we enter the twenty-first century. Social theory today is typically fragmented in scope, anti-foundational in temper, riven with epistemological conflict and unsure of its relationship with social and political action. Parsons, by contrast, sought nothing less than the construction of a unified map of the social. His irrepressible usage of the vocabulary of structured systems, determinate input-output relations and boundary interchanges, in these endeavours, contrasts markedly with the anti-canonical iconoclasm of the present day. Parsons, by contrast, is an iconic figure, offering an iconic style of social theory. This aspired to coherence not merely in its internal logic and architecture, but also in its account of the relationship between the social, the metaphysical and the natural worlds.

These wider concerns reflect both his liberal Protestant origins, and early career ambitions to become a biological scientist. These influences underlie Parsons’ concern to provide an account of social action, capable of acknowledging both the place of human autonomy driven by ultimate values, and the importance of socialization and forms of structural dependency on the biological organism. His map of the social is therefore positioned between two external environments, the ‘inner’ environment of ultimate meaning and purpose, and the ‘outer’ environment of the natural (physicochemical and organic) worlds.

This perspective on the social means, amongst other things, that Parsons’ social theory gives a prominent place to the sociology of values (including religious values), to the sociology of material life (including economic institutions), and to the sociology of health and sickness (including connections between materiality and values). These broad interests were pursued in the Departments of Sociology and Social Relations at Harvard University, where Parsons taught from the early 1930s. There are few social theorists writing today with Parsons’ synthetic boldness of interdisciplinary vision. This may partly explain the exaggerated contemporary success of socio-biology in colonizing the territory where biology meets sociology. Parsons, by contrast with most contemporary social theorists, was not content merely to claim that biology is mediated through sociality, a position that leaves the territory vulnerable to occupation by others.

The political implications of Parsons’ social theory are also worth clarifying, in view of the criticisms made of him as merely an apologist for American conservatism. It is certainly the case that Parsons grounded a good deal of his social theory on institutional and interpersonal patterns of life evident in American society. These include the multiple and cross-cutting sets of civil associations, and the relative freedom from traditional ties of status that he believed had impeded upward social mobility, undermined social consensus and created class conflicts in Europe. As postwar reconstruction and social stabilization proceeded in the 1950s, many social theorists like Parsons developed evolutionary theories of social change around concepts of modernization, and the emergence of industrial society. These centred on the politics of liberal democratic reform, and the further extension of citizenship rights through inclusion of groups hitherto excluded from imperfectly democratic institutions.

Within these overoptimistic assumptions, Parsons’ political agenda centred domestically on a fuller social citizenship in areas such as the inclusion of African Americans. In the same spirit he opposed elements of anti-semitic exclusion within the institutions of academia. Very little attention, by contrast was given to issues of gender exclusion. In foreign affairs, meanwhile, his basic approach was that of assimilation of the underdeveloped world within what he saw as the superior Western institutions of democracy, the market and the rule of law. Support for American policy in the Vietnam War followed from this. His interest in achieving social order through normative consensus rather than violence and coercion none the less made him critical of the superpower conflicts of the Cold War. While fearful of nuclear war, Parsons’ theoretical expectations encouraged him to look for the possible emergence of international forms of normative order within the United Nations, and intermediary groups between the great powers, such as the Non-Aligned Movement (Parsons, 1961). These thoughts remained undeveloped, however, and in most respects Parsons like most other sociologists of his generation, remained wedded to the national-focused comparative sociology of individual societies, rather than to the global perspectives that have since become more prominent.

Parsons’ Social Theory

There is always a tendency to overestimate the internal consistency of a social theorist’s work, and this is no less true of Parsons than anyone else. His sociological endeavour shifted around in many of its interests and emphases as he encountered new issues, or was confronted with intellectual challenges and social changes that appeared to challenge aspects of his previous thinking. For all of this, we may say that Parsons’ work was concerned with two core theoretical issues above all else. These may be labelled the problem of social action, and the problem of social order (Alexander, 1983). The problem of social action asks why human actors act in the way that they do, how far their actions are structured by influences outside their control, and what consequences, intentional or unintended, follow. The problem of social order asks how it is possible for a multiplicity of social actions to produce some kind of coordinated social patterning, and how far such patterning depends on force or compulsion, as against consensus.

These two problems come together, under modern conditions and within Western liberal traditions, around the issues of self-interest and rationality in social life. If the rational pursuit of self-interest is advanced as an answer to the problem of social action, there remains the difficulty of explaining how it is that self-interest can generate social order. If social action is explained, on the other hand, in terms of the determining influence of structures beyond individual control, then what place is left for human autonomy and rationality, perception and judgement in social life? These issues had, of course, been around for a long time. Parsons’ virtuoso strategy for dealing with their seeming intractability was to try to reconcile structure and agency, the ‘macro’ institutions and rules underlying social order, with the ‘micro’ personality or self, within some kind of new theoretical synthesis.

In the early part of his career Parsons account of social action was developed through a critique of the utilitarian assumptions which lay at the heart of neoclassical economics. Social action involves both ‘ends’ and ‘means,’ but how were they connected? Economic theory typically took the ends of action as given and probably unknowable. It was concerned rather with the logic whereby actors select and implement those means that will achieve given ends in the most efficient or rational ways. This approach was defective, according to Parsons, for two main reasons. First, it excluded enquiry into the social origins of ends, including questions such as the part played by social values and meaning in determining ends. Secondly, it failed to account for social order, relying on the dubious assumption that the pursuit of self-interest by a mass of individuals would somehow create order in a spontaneous fashion, as in Adam Smith’s celebrated metaphor of the invisible hand guiding market transactions.

There had been many critics of economic theory before Parsons who had identified the same set of problems. His response differed, however, from many of his predecessors. Whereas the so-called institutional school of economists adopted a somewhat ad hoc approach, showing how economists’ assumptions failed to operate in a range of individual cases, Parsons sought a theoretical response. This should somehow incorporate explanation of both the values and norms that went into the determination of ends, and an account of the material processes whereby economic resources were appropriated and made available as means to satisfy ends.

Against this background, there is a consistency running through all his work. This applies to major theoretical statements in The Structure of Social Action (1937) and The Social System (1951), through collaborations such as Towards a General Theory of Action (Parsons and Shils, 1951), to compilations of essays such as Social Structure and Personality (1964a), Sociological Theory and Modern Society(1967) and Action Theory and the Human Condition (1978), a number of which deal with empirical issues such as ‘Christianity and Modern Industrial Society,’ or ‘Full Citizenship for the Negro American.’ This unifying thread concerns the construction of an action theory of both the social system and the wider human condition. The ambition here was to explain how social action was at one and the same time structured in systemic ways, and yet expressive of, and functional to the autonomy of particular individuals and households. This in turn required that attention be given to the meaning of action in terms of human purpose, as well as recognition of the organic exigencies of life.

If this is the underlying logic of Parsons’ position, then it is equally the case that different moments in his career find him exploring one line of argument, such as structural or systemic determination of action, as far as it may be taken. In this particular example, his most deterministic writing, as found in much of The Social System, was taken by his critics to be definitive and final. Parsons, it was said, saw individuals as bearers of social rules that were typically internalized within the personality and processes of social reproduction. Social consensus was thus the normal modus operandi, and deviance episodic and pathological. Parsons labelled this ‘structural functional analysis,’ rather than structural functionalism, as such. Structural functional analysis was conceived as a highly generalized mode of theory-building, founded on the analytical significance of variations in the structural bases of social systems, and their relations with the performance of functions essential to social life (Parsons, 1951: 19-22).

The charge that Parsons held to an oversocialized (Wrong, 1961), or overintegrated (Lockwood, 1956), conception of social life, was to stay with him for the remainder of his life. And as his theory had come to be articulated in the mid-1950s, there was much merit in the criticism. From a longer-term perspective, none the less, the charge is not consistent either with his intentions, or with much that he wrote at earlier or later points in his life. It is certainly true that Parsons, in company with most of the classical nineteenth century sociologists thought that social relationships and institutions performed social functions. The problem lies rather with the attachment of functionalism to the idea of structuralism. This association tends to play down the voluntaristic, meaning-oriented aspect of Parsons’ attempted theoretical synthesis. The centrality of social action, in his thinking helps explain why Parsons moved away from the idea of structural functional analysis in his later work (Parsons, 1977: 100-17), even while his critics gleefully perpetuated it as a false totem to be excised from the sociological pantheon. By the end of his career, Parsons had come to regard the social system, the notion at the heart of structural functionalism, as a component part of the action system rather than the other way around. Meanwhile the action system is itself only one component of the human condition. The idea of structural functionalism is then unhelpful to a balanced understanding of the general thrust of Parsons’ work.

Mapping the Social: Beyond Structural Functionalism

Key moves in the elaboration of Parsons’ social theory involved identification of the multiple exigencies that faced social actors, and which set the challenges that social systems faced if they were to secure social stability. Parsons argued such exigencies were complex and differentiated rather than singular or unitary. The route by which he arrived at this conclusion, built first on the idea of ‘pattern variables’ that characterized both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ societies (Parsons et al., 1953). Five sets of pattern variables were located, namely particularism and universalism, ascription and achievement, specificity and diffuseness, affectivity and neutrality, and collectivity-orientation as contrasted with self-orientation. While designed primarily for analytical purposes, Parsons’ conception of modernity was associated with the second term in each of these pairs.

The substance of the pattern variables drew in part on the conventional dichotomies of classical sociology, such as Tönnies’ contrast between ‘traditional’ Gemeinschaft (involving community or collectivity-orientation), and ‘modern’ Gesellschaft (involving the association of self-interested individuals). But it also introduced new elements deriving from interdisciplinary collaboration at Harvard, and from empirical research that Parsons had conducted into both the sociology of the professions, and the sociology of health and illness. The dichotomies between ‘traditional’ affectivity and particularism and ‘modern’ neutrality and universalism, for example, were influenced by his analysis of the role of professional-client relations in medicine. Here the clinician’s professionalism was seen as depending on a dispassionate and detached neutrality, differentiated from any emotional or affective attachment to the patient, and integrated within the universalistic norms of service.

Taken overall, then, the transition from tradition to modernity meant a differentiation and specialization of social roles and institutions. The individual was increasingly separated from the strong bonds of community, and emotion was to be detached from rationality. At the household level, this resulted in a very conservative and controversial reading of the gender division of labour, where modern women were seen as specializing in affective roles, leaving men to specialize in the detached and rational realms of professional life and public rationality. Over the past forty years, the entire edifice of the pattern variables has come under the most scathing criticism, both for its ahistorical and uncritical approach toward differentiation, and for its use of exaggerated and misleading conceptual dichotomies between the traditional and the modern.

The multiple forms of social differentiation represented in Parsons’ pattern variables were developed in both a theoretical and historical direction. Theoretically they were a bridge into the four-function or AGIL paradigm which remained at the heart of his theoretical endeavours until his death (Parsons and Smelser, 1956). This highly abstract system defined social life in terms of four major exigencies. These may be listed as follows, but in no particular order of priority. The adaptive (A) challenge, comprises interaction between society and outer nature, generating resources available for social distribution. The goal-attainment (G) challenge involves the setting of resources to meet human goals. The integration (I) challenge is concerned with the harmonization of the entire social system, including A, I and L elements, through effective norms. The final component of this account is the latent pattern-maintenance (L) challenge, which involves interaction with society and the inner metaphysical environment, and is concerned with the stabilization of the ultimate values held by individuals into patterns of social values. These are projected as latent insofar as they become taken for granted rather than explicit.

The functioning of social systems involves complex patterns of interchange or input-output relations between the four functional components. A highly simplified version of how this is supposed to work is as follows. The A sub-system, for example, delivers resource outputs to the G sub-system, which are reciprocated through inputs of capital from the G sub-system back to the A sub-system. Meanwhile, outputs of social goods from the G sub-system require legitimation according to value outputs from the L system, with the whole network of exchanges regulated through institutionalized norms emanating from the I system. A vast edifice of further elaboration was designed to clarify the nature of system interchange through generalized media such as money, power and influence.

This AGIL system, it should be emphasized is an analytical construct rather than an empirical description of social life. Its analytical significance is that it offers a theoretical map of the social that is located between outer nature and the metaphysical realm, and internally differentiated in terms of four exigencies or challenges faced by any social system. While we might loosely identify A with the economy, G with the polity, I with law and L with cultural values, these associations would be somewhat misleading. The analytical reason for this is that Parsons sub-divided each of the four individual AGIL categories, into four sub-categories. In the case of the A sub-system, for example, this was further divided into an adaptive sub-system (Aa), a goal-setting subsystem (Ag), an integration sub-system (Ai) and a latent-pattern maintenance sub-system (Al). The process of production (Aa), could thus be differentiated from strategic goal-setting (Ag), the entrepreneurial integration of factors of production (Ai) and economic values (Al). In this way Parsons, sought, amongst other things, to emphasize the interpénétration of the four functional exigencies or challenges throughout the social system. Put more simply, values were not exclusive to culture, nor was integration exclusive to law (for further elaboration see Holton and Turner, 1986).

A final issue in the elaboration of Parsons’ grand theory, is the status of the term social system. This was defined in far broader terms than the conventional association of social systems with national societies. For Parsons, any entity that was relatively self-subsistent with respect to an environment qualified as a social system. The AGIL framework was thereby potentially applicable to social organizations both within (for example, universities and government departments) as well as beyond nations (for example, the UN).

This whole exercise none the less raises the question as to the utility of such a proliferation of theoretical boxes. What is to be gained by the construction of such a complex theoretical apparatus, beyond the translation of familiar theoretical problems into a new terminology? Does Parsons’ account of the multidimensional interpénétration of social functions, for example, improve on Weber’s anti-reductionist comment that ‘a banking history of a nation which adduces only economic motives for explanatory purposes is … just as unacceptable as an explanation of the Sistine Madonna as a consequence of the socio-economic basis of the culture of the epoch in which it was created’’ (Weber, 1949: 71)?

One particular defence of Parsons, with relevance to economic life, is that his theoretical approach had within it the elements of an integrated research programme, capable of promoting many neglected issues in economic sociology. In a situation where conventional forms of economics neglected the social determination of ends, and radical political economy produced accounts that emphasized power and coercion at the expense of norms, Parsons’ framework offers ways of bringing norms and values back in (Holton, 1992). This legacy (along with the earlier work of Durkheim upon which Parsons drew), has exerted a diffuse influence on later discussions of economic values, the social meaning of money and trust.

A more general issue raised by Parsons’ four-function paradigm is its utility in understanding social change, and its capacity to illuminate the historical evolution of societies. Reacting against criticisms of excessively ahistorical abstraction, Parsons responded with two key books: Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966) and The System of Modern Societies (1971), preceded by a seminal article, ‘Evolutionary Universals’ (1964b). These more historically focused works were not grounded in empirical research. But they did at least offer a kind of conjectural history designed to explain the rise of Western institutions. A strength of this neglected body of work is Parsons’ alertness to contrasts in the developmental significance of differing national and regional institutions and traditions. The major weakness is a triumphalist Occidental organizing framework, within which evidence of historical complexity is exquisitely tortured to fit Parsons’ grand theoretical apparatus.

Parsons, like other postwar theorists of modernization, adopted an evolutionist stance towards processes of social change. This drew on biological accounts of the evolution of species in general and the notion of evolutionary advantage in particular. Just as the human species had gained advantages in meeting the exigencies of life, through the development of specialized organs such as the hand, so particular human societies gained adaptive advantages in developing institutions better able to meet the four AGIL challenges, outlined above. Specialization meant both the differentiation of social institutions from each other, as well as the development of specific institutional complexes within each specialized sub-system.

In the case of the A (adaptive) sub-system, this meant the market rather than the command economy, for the G (goal-attachment) system, democracy rather than authoritarianism, for the I (integration) sub-system, the rule of law rather than arbitrary procedures, and for the L (latent pattern maintenance) system, patterns of values that emphasized moral individualism rather than traditional community. The modern complex of institutions such as the market, democracy and so forth, represented a set of specialized institutions better able to meet the challenges of social life than the alternatives. In this sense they represent ‘evolutionary universals.’ From this perspective, liberal democratic market economies was seen as better adapted to meet such exigencies than less differentiated communist societies in which economic, legal and cultural organizations were integrated into a suffocating political authoritarianism. For Parsons it followed that the communist model would either collapse (as it has) or successfully converge with the liberal democratic capitalist model (which it has not).

One criticism of this kind of evolutionism is that it leads inexorably to what may be called an ‘end of history’ position. As articulated by Fukuyama (1989), this claims that liberal capitalism has won the evolutionary struggle with alternative social systems and ideologies. There is, in this sense, no alternative future beyond liberal democratic market society. Parsons’ own position was not, however, quite as complacent as this. His earlier evolutionary optimism was soon to be profoundly shaken by the social radicalism of Western student movements in the late 1960s. This prompted a greater attention to what he regarded as strains and disturbances within broadly liberal democratic arrangements, as well as to the emergence of movements aiming at de-differentiation (Parsons, 1978: 148-53). Further elaboration of the idea of ‘societal community’ remained a preoccupation for the rest of his life, anticipating in many respects the recent revival of interest in civil society.

A key feature of the student challenge was opposition to the ‘value neutrality’ of academia, which Parsons had seen as a typically modern pattern variable. This suggested the immanence of a de-differentiating cultural revolution which would reintegrate communitarian values within institutions of higher education hitherto characterized by cognitive rationality. In the face of this prospect Parsons argued that further differentiation rather than de-differentiation was the more likely future. Students, after all, occupied a temporary social position, and could not be likened to more enduring social groupings, such as the social classes of Marxist theory. What the higher educational revolution had revealed was a certain failure of social integration. Parsons located this failure in the detachment of the specialized personality types generated in intellectual communities from ‘a community-type societal nexus’ (1978: 151). This was part of the more general problem of integrating the emergent importance of knowledge-holders and knowledge-based institutions (in Parsonian language ‘the cognitive complex’) with the broader social system.

This episode is instructive in demonstrating that Parsons’ social theory posited continuing forms of disturbance and social strain within the process of social change. While he used the language of systems quite extensively, this was not meant to imply that nothing ever went wrong, or that social arrangements never broke down. Achievement of the evolutionary universal he identified in the early 1960s did not mean an end to history, for two reasons. First, social evolution continued, raising new integrative challenges. Secondly, there was no guarantee that individual societies would necessarily converge with the liberal democratic capitalist model. And in a wider sense, continuing crises of integration were likely to be manifest at the level of the individual personality, as well as at the level of the social system. While emphasizing a strong tendency for individuals to be socialized into coherent and stable normative patterns, Parsons equally perceived continuing problems of inadequate socialization, inasmuch as individuals are not socialized within the social system as such, but only within particular parts of that system, such as the family or the school.

While it is possible to defend Parsons’ approach from ‘end of history’ complacency, there remains the almost inescapable conclusion that his theoretical apparatus set sharp limits to his capacity to explain social change, and thus to map the social. Take his response to the challenge of de-differentiation, for example (Parsons, 1978: 138-43). This was thoroughly unadventurous in that Parsons assumed virtually no limits to the capacity of differentiation processes to meet adaptive challenges. Other contemporaries, were not so sure. In the case of the relations between knowledge and society, for example, Parsons’ assumptions of a unifying normative order and cultural system ruled out more adventurous possibilities, such as Daniel Bell’s theory of the cultural contradictions of capitalism (Bell, 1976). For Bell, the emergence of a knowledge-based postindustrial society created sharp tensions between an older work ethic born of industrial society and a more recent culture of self-actualization and self-realization. Capitalism it seemed contained two divergent cultural patterns rather than one.

A more fundamental objection to Parsons’ evolutionary universals may be linked with the rise of de-differentiating movements both within and beyond the West. Within the West, a good deal of the recent momentum behind discussions of de-differentiation, stems from reactions against the politics of the Reagan and Thatcher years, labelled as new right, monetarist, or economic rationalist. While attempts to press a market-based utilitarian model as far as it may be taken continue, their partial implementation has created counter-movements, represented theoretically within a resurgence of communitarianism. Much of this is similar to Parsons in temper, inasmuch as it is recognized that the market (or A sub-system), cannot operate independently of the remainder of society. Parsons would of course agree that markets need extraeconomic normative (I sub-system) supports, as well as cultural (L sub-system) legitimacy. Significant differences emerge, however, around questions of power and inequality, and how they affect theories of relations between economy and society.

Parsons on Power

Parsons’ discussion of power is often seen as one of the weakest parts of his social theory. Giddens (1968), Parkin (1979: 51-4) and Alexander (1984: 198), for example, point to the way that Parsons’ theoretical edifice neglects structural features of modern society, including the predominant power of private capital over both labour, and government. Other critics have claimed that Parsons neglected power relation in favour of normative explanations of social order. This has been linked to a downplaying of Marxist theory, in favour of a Durkheimian approach. Many issues are at stake here, pertaining both to empirical and theoretical questions.

In an empirical sense Parsons believed, with most modernization theorists, that the increasing separation of ownership from management rendered Marxian analyses of the power of private capital redundant. Management had become differentiated from ownership, and thus amenable, at least in principle, to normative regulation according to norms of professional service. There is little concern here, either for the issues to do with the profit-optimization logic of managerial activity, and the vulnerability of underperforming corporations to takeover, or for the de-differentiation of management and ownership through stock-option packages and management buyouts.

Parsons also gave great weight to extensions of political citizenship, around conceptions of social rights implemented within welfare state policies. These were regarded, following writers such as the English sociologist T.H. Marshall, as means of limiting or balancing economic activities with wider democratic political processes and objectives. While it might be said that neo-Marxists have underestimated the importance of citizenship, it is equally the case that Parsons failed to consider the possibility that welfare states might function more as agents of capitalist social control than as a limit on the power of holders of capital. Such debates are, however, difficult to resolve at a general conjectural level, and demand a far greater attention to historical and national variations between state and society than Parsons or his critics have often provided.

In a more theoretical sense, Parsons’ treatment of power raises important issues about the relative importance of coercion, money, influence and value consensus in securing social order. The idea of social order is of course a very slippery term in its own right, part of a diffuse array of terms like integration, coherence, stability and equilibrium, whose meaning is by no means commonly agreed or clearly and consistently distinguished. Is order the same as social equilibrium and social stasis, or is order conceivable as a series of constantly shifting social arrangements, constituted by dynamic uncertainty? Does the integration of social institutions into a coherent pattern, necessarily entail the social integration of actors through strong ties of solidarity and consent? And beyond this lie questions arising from the highly normative status of social order as a concept. If there is more than one normative yardstick upon which perceptions of order rely, then it is possible that what is order from one social vantage point looks like disorder from another. Is a large street demonstration necessarily a manifestation of disorder, threatening violence and challenging the status quo, or is it rather to be seen as an orderly expression of hard-won civil rights, and solidarity for those involved? Those with an interest in the status quo may perceive order differently to those who feel excluded. Parsons’ contribution to the theory of social order engaged with a number of these issues, but was conducted mostly within a highly abstract framework, difficult to operationalize in empirical analysis. He took as his reference points inadequacies in two major accounts of social order. In answer to the question ‘How is social order constituted?,’ these stressed either coercion (the tradition of Hobbes and Marx), or harmony of interests (the tradition of utilitarianism). In the former case, insufficient attention was given to issues such as the role of consent, or the significance of beliefs in the legitimacy of a social order. In the case of utilitarianism, no account was provided of the processes whereby harmony of interests emerged within social institutions, and personality types.

Parsons’ alternative involved a multidimensional version of social exchange theory. As we have already noted, the AGIL four-function paradigm entailed a multidimensional account of social life, based on the interpénétration of A, G, I and L elements. His account of the mechanisms of interaction within this system centred on what were called generalized media of exchange. It was here that Parsons’ discussion of power was located, as one of several such media (Parsons, 1963). Others included money and influence.

Parsons offered a multiform definition of power as a ‘generalized capacity to secure the performance of binding obligations by units in a system of collective organization when the obligations are legitimized with reference to their bearing on collective goals, and where there is a presumption of enforcement of negative situational sanctions’ (Parsons, 1967: 308). In this way he combined issues of force or coercion with issues of legitimation and consent, rather than neglecting the former in favour of the latter. This enabled him to secure the idea of power as a circulating medium able to move across and between the four functional subsystems of any social system. Power, in this sense, was connected both with economic property rights (the institutional structure of the market) and with symbolic patterns of normative commitment.

Interestingly, this multidimensional approach enabled Parsons to detach power from an exclusive relationship with the sovereign power of government, thereby leaving conceptual space for the operation of power through stable normative rules that required no explicit use of force. This insight was not, however, developed in a Foucauldian direction via a discursive construction of knowledge/power, operating within the play of language and performance, and as a micro-physics of power. This is partly because in thinking of the concrete forms in which power was institutionalized, Parsons assumed the necessity of highly integrated political systems. The underlying model here was that of the nation-state requiring ‘some relatively paramount apex of power,’ thereby privileging sovereign power (1967: 344). It also connects with his relatively undeveloped discussion of epistemological issues to do with how truth is socially constructed. Parsons’ social theory, for example, does not problematize language in any fundamental way.

As a neo-Kantian, Parsons accepted that knowledge is socially constructed, and built up from organizing or orienting categories and social facts. In analysing the relations between the two, he none the less wished to move beyond Kant’s dichotomy between sense data ‘emanating from the external world and the categories of the understanding, which are of transcendental grounding’ (1967: 400). He felt this tended to diminish the status of sense data as random, putting the emphasis rather on categorical ordering in the construction of knowledge. This encouraged a kind of subjectivism, for if scientific knowledge of the empirical world is categorically driven and thus fictional, then reality becomes simply a matter of subjective experience. Parsons’ alternative is to think of a differentiated set of relations between knowledge and the world, ranging from causal explanation designed to achieve empirical ordering of social facts, to world views providing transcendental ordering in matters to do with the ultimate metaphysical purposes of human action.

What is lacking here is further concrete elaboration of the relations between power and knowledge, within social practices and institutions. For all his interest in the self and in personality development, for example, Parsons’ discussion of power lacks what might be called a micro-sociological dimension. At best, this amounts to what Alexander calls a ‘macro-sociological theory of the micro foundations of behaviour’ (Alexander, 1998: 212). Foucault’s discourses of professional knowledge/power, that constrain as much as they enable, are reallocated in Parsonian theory, as enabling features of the modern normative order, and associated with processes such as the work of universalistically competent professional actors.

The most critical theoretical issue in any assessment of Parsons on power remains his assumption of broadly symmetrical relationships between different subsystems of the social order, implying a symmetry in the power of different social interests or collectivities. The architecture here is that of input-output relations between the different subsystems of society, transmitted as it were through generalized media of exchange. Parsons typically thinks in terms of a tendency towards a symmetrical balancing of the four functional exigencies faced by any society, if it is to evolve and be sustainable.

When challenged with the problem of concentrated power in the hands of any particular interest, the Parsonian response is to identify the inputs required from other parts of the social system for any one element in the system to operate effectively. In the case of private holders of capital, to take one example, these rely on inputs of political legitimacy, legal security and personalities socialized into the work ethic. Such inputs can only be sustained if capital holders can deliver goods available for political redistribution, and income to sustain those who offer their labour. Parsons’ critics rightly see this type of argument as assuming rather than proving a level playing field between social actors within liberal democracies. If the initial conditions of the system are unequal, and if the operation of the system reproduces that inequality, then the mere functioning of the system does not entail symmetry in the power available to different collectivities within that system.

Parsons’ more general treatment of power is, however, far more subtle, than the simplistic, exclusively normative caricature presented by some critics. The agenda of generic issues he elaborated, such as the connection between force and norms, or the degree to which power is a zero-sum game, remain at the centre of debate, both within sociology (Holmwood, 1996: 62-70) and more generally within rational choice theory. This applies even though the substance of much of his more concrete commentaries on power in modern society is widely regarded as implausible.

Parsons, His Critics, and the Parsonian Legacy

Bryan Turner (Holton and Turner, 1986: 187) has made an important distinction between two contrasting modes of criticism of Parsons’ work. The first, rather piecemeal approach, is to select particular features of his work (for example, professionalization, social change, power), for detailed critique. The second, more holistic, line of attack focuses on the overall structure and logic of his theory. One interesting feature of continuing debates around Parsons’ work, foreshadowed in the discussion of power, is that key elements in his general theoretical project have proven more robust than many of the more specific component parts of his enterprise. The general features of his project that remain important influences are, first, his attempt to map the social, including boundary interchanges with the internal and external environments, and secondly, his attempt to develop a non-reductionist and hence multidimensional social theory inclusive of normative as well as coercive or instrumental elements.

Contemporary social theory contains more centrifugal than centripetal tendencies. Splitters implicated in fragmentation predominate over lumpers committed to synthesis. General theory is itself under fire from a number of directions. These range from those who see general theory as the pursuit of a philosophical chimera (Holmwood, 1996; Mouzelis, 1991), to those who reject it as a form of totalizing power/knowledge resting on the dubious epistemological hubris of Western reason. Yet among those still interested in a general mapping of the social, Parsons remains a powerful reference point and theoretical resource.

One important example of this occurs around issues to do with relations between society and the biological organism, as they both affect the creation of the social self and construct the human condition. Parsons’ early work on the sick role as a social construct, for example, made considerable inroads into purely biological accounts of human sickness. For all the detailed and substantive limitations of Parsons’ argument, this helped open up a general line of argument in favour of medical sociology, that has never looked back. He also made a parallel contribution to the sociology of the personality, by re-casting Freudian psychoanalysis in more sociological directions. Themes discussed include the Oedipus problem (Parsons, 1953) and the incest taboo (Parsons, 1954).

This body of work has exerted a diffuse influence on subsequent feminist work such as Chodorow’s analysis of the socialization processes involved in the gendering of personality (1978, 1989). Parsons’ theoretical impact is evident here, even though he himself took a rather conservative position on the conventional gender division of labour. This centred on what he took as the functional significance of differentiation between public and private roles, which allocated men primarily to the ‘public’ industrial system, and women, operating as specialists in child socialization, to the isolated nuclear family. While Chodorow problematized this account of differentiated gender roles, she none the less, accepted that effective socialization processes around gender required analysis of the personality types and motivational elements involved. This led her to formulate and pursue the question, ‘Why do most women want to be mothers?’ in a manner typical of Parsons’ psychoanalytically inflected sociology.

Having said this, it remains the case that feminism, in its varied theoretical manifestations, remains highly critical of the functionalist premises within which Parsons grounded his accounts of social differentiation. The public/private divide, and institutions such as the nuclear family, are typically interpreted, not as functionally adapted to personality formation and social order, but in more pathological terms. Their function is not to secure some kind of upgraded universalistic evolutionary advantage in the successful socialization of individuals into a stable set of roles, but to secure the reproduction of patriarchal domination. Under modern conditions this has become a destabilizing rather than an integrating force. Empirical evidence of de-differentiation in the gender division of labour, expressed in part through resistance to traditional gender roles, appears as a radical challenge to Parsons’ substantive analyses of the family and gender within modern society.

Another more fundamental area where Parsons’ general social theory has proven extremely robust, even in the face of criticism of the more substantive levels of analysis, involves his use of system theory. In Germany, for example, both Luhmann and Habermas, have developed different versions of systems theory, sharing common generic features and the presuppositions if not the detailed substance of Parsons’ work. For Luhmann (1990: 255), in particular, Parsons’ systems theory is seen both as the only recent attempt to formulate a general social theory of sufficient complexity to be plausible, and as a project that remains largely unrefuted in its general parameters. Luhmann identifies a number of enduring characteristics of this project, including the often neglected point that systems theory is not the theory of a particular kind of empirical object (that is, systems). It is focused rather on the theorizing of entities that can be analytically distinguished from the environments in which they operate. Amongst other things, this clarification disposes of the objection that societies are too disorderly or exhibit too few stable and enduring patterns to warrant use of the idea of system in social theory.

Luhmann’s appreciation of Parsons extends both to his account of the internal components of social systems, and to his treatment of the distinctions and connections between systems of various kinds and the environments in which they operate. In the former domain, Parsons’ four-function paradigm is seen as rendering redundant the perpetuation of social theories claiming general priority for any single functional subsystem. In the latter, Luhmann welcomes Parsons’ interdisciplinary attention to relations between systems and their environment, while arguing that this attention does not probe far enough. In his alternative approach, Luhmann asks whether and in what senses systems are open or closed with respect to an environment. In contrast with Parsons’ account of openness to both the physical and metaphysical environments, Luhmann’s perspective is more complex. In essence he sees social systems as causally open to wider environments, but cognitively or operationally closed in the sense of being self-referential. The medium of exchange which Parsons failed to discuss in this respect was communication.

Habermas, while writing in the iconoclastic traditions of critical theory, has none the less appropriated much of Parsons’ general systems idiom. But like Luhmann he argues that communication, or in Habermas’ terms, communicative rationality, is a crucial missing element in Parsons’ social theory. While agreeing with much of the logic and conceptual architecture of Parsons’ multidimensional systems theory, Habermas’ substantive elaboration of its dynamics leads in somewhat divergent directions. In terms of common ground, Habermas, like Parsons, accepts that there are multiple aspects to social evolution, embracing both instrumental/economic and normative exigencies. Society, in this sense, evolves in both its capacity to generate material resources and in the learning of social rules and the construction of institutions embodying some kind of consensual order. Habermas diverges from Parsons in his account of the dynamics of evolution, his greater emphasis on conflict and crisis rather than order and integration, and his emancipatory search for a reconstructed public realm. This search is grounded on communicative interpersonal exchange within the lifeworld, that is, on forms of exchange beyond power and money. Both Habermas and Parsons draw on liberal democratic models of the public sphere (Calhoun, 1996: 455-7). Habermas, however, places explicit emphasis on the transcendental potential of language and speech as bases for the construction of public norms of validity, applying to truth, Tightness and authenticity. Communicative rationality in this way is seen as anti-pathetical to the ‘civic and familial privatism’ that animates much of Parsons’ work.

While some of his objections to Parsons are familiar, Habermas’ critique is striking in the way that it remains within system theory, and tries to build a radical alternative from within. At the heart of this re-casting of system theory is a more communitarian, less individualistic and differentiated approach to normative order than that offered by Parsons. Yet in privileging of emergent norms arising within the speech-communities of the life-world, Habermas neglects the institutional frameworks of public life and normative order that occupy centre stage in Parsons’ accounts of societal community. The result is a dualism between ‘system’ and ‘life-world,’ rather than an integrated analysis of the macro and micro elements of public life.

In the case of system theory, as with theories of power, and of personality formation, Parsons’ generic agenda remains a major though controversial reference point. While Luhmann may be right in stressing that Parsons’ generic theoretical edifice has not been supplanted by any more powerful alternative, it remains unclear just how far grand theory of this kind has a future in contemporary social thought.

Concluding Thoughts: Parsons, Neo, or Post?

Social theories, and rhetorical styles of talking about theory seem to come and go. Parsons’ work was proclaimed to be flawed and inadequate in the late 1960s and 1970s, only to stage a comeback in the 1980s, even spawning a significant but ultimately transitory school of neofunctionalism around Jeff Alexander and his associates (Alexander, 1985, 1998). If Marx and Weber deserve schools of followers, so the argument went, then why not Parsons as well? The past few decades have, however, been an epoch of ‘posts’ (post-industrial, post-modern, post-structuralist, post-Marxist etc.), rather more than ‘neos’ (neo-realist, neo-Marxist and so forth). If this rhetoric is anything to go by, then theoretical renewal is less in vogue than a will to transcend past failures together with uncertainty about where the present is leading.

It is a measure of Parsons’ stature as a social theorist that his work is relevant both for those of a ‘neo’ and those of a ‘post’ disposition. Parsons’ ‘neo-work’ involved an immense synthesis not only of the classical sociological tradition, but also of a broader multidisciplinary body of work, embracing biology and cybernetics. His ambition to position social theory within a more overarching account of the human condition, including both organic and psychic elements, remains unmatched within the narrower more introverted discussions that currently occupy the terrain of social theory.

The syntheses developed in his general work on action-systems, and the social system, meanwhile, have defined most of the generic terrain upon which subsequent debates in system theory, social exchange theory and theories of power, order and conflict, personality formation and socialization have taken place. And within more substantive areas, Parsons, together with associates such as Neil Smelser, left areas such as economic sociology, the sociology of institutions, medical sociology and the sociology of personality very different from when he first encountered them. In this respect, his work may be seen as a creative renewal of the classical sociological tradition; if you like, a neo-classicism.

For ‘postists’ on the other hand, Parsons’ legacy may be less evident. One of the strengths of ‘postism’ may be its impatience with excessive piety toward older inadequate bodies of theory, especially those that maintain the holy grail of a rationally constituted social theory of general validity. Contemporary social theory has been variously seen as post-modern, post-materialist, post-classical, or even post-neo-functional, implying a greater diversity and fragmentation. Against this, Parsons’ strategy of building a single general theory out of new syntheses of past traditions appears rhetorically incorrect.

The wish to move beyond outmoded versions of social theory, characteristic of postism, has however proven less effectively iconoclastic than it would sometimes have us believe. Whatever the inadequacies of Parsons’ sociology, of which there are many, analysts seem continually to return either to his statement of grand theory or at least the issues contained within it. This stems both from the continuing search for clarification (or ‘cognitive ordering’ as Parsons puts it), and from awareness of the inescapable presence of grand theoretical assumptions within any form of sociological reasoning. In this sense, albeit reluctantly, we are all Parsonians now. When liberated from negative stereotypes and read afresh, Parsons’ theoretical reach, implacable curiosity and synthetic ingenuity remain a rich and underexplored legacy. His work is, however, a bounded resource. For more concrete, empirically grounded theory, capable, as Alexander (1998: 212) puts it, of tracking ‘concrete, living, breathing actors making their way through space and time,’ it is necessary to look elsewhere.